Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III has convened a grand jury, indicted former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his aide Rick Gates, obtained a guilty plea from Trump foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos and begun interviewing Trump’s top aides in the White House.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders in Congress have said they are aiming to wrap up the congressional investigations in the House and Senate by February. Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who represents a portion of Pasadena and is the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, thinks that timeframe is much too soon, as there are still more witnesses to interview and evidence to review.
Trump and the White House frequently criticize Schiff for doing many media interviews about the investigation. On July 24, Trump wrote on Twitter, “Sleazy Adam Schiff, the totally biased congressman looking into ‘Russia,’ spends all of his time on television pushing the Dem loss excuse!”
Schiff responded by tweeting, “With respect Mr. President, the problem is how often you watch TV, and that your comments and actions are beneath the dignity of the office.”
On Nov. 1, during a House Intelligence Committee hearing, Schiff laid out the evidence for Trump-Russia collusion so far, saying, “What is clear is this: the Kremlin repeatedly told the campaign it had dirt on Clinton and offered to help it, and at least one top Trump official, the president’s own son, accepted.”
Schiff recently spoke with the Pasadena Weekly about the Russia investigation.
Justin Chapman: Where does the House Intelligence Committee investigation stand? Where are you in the process and what’s to come?
Congressman Adam Schiff: We continue to make progress and have multiple witnesses coming in each week. We continue to learn new and important information about what the Russians did and how they did it, and in particular about contacts between the Russians and Trump campaign that bear further investigation.
I’m limited in what I can discuss. Donald Trump Jr. revealed some of his direct messages on Twitter to WikiLeaks, and this is significant. Of course, he did it only because they were about to be published, which is similar to when he released his emails about the meeting at Trump Tower.
But what is significant about them is if you look at the timetable, on June 9, 2016, Don Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner take a meeting with intermediaries from Russia who have been promising dirt as part of what they describe as a Russian government effort to help the Trump campaign, and there are two messages that the Trump campaign sends back through these intermediaries.
The first is they would love to have the help. And the second is, they were very disappointed in the help they got at that meeting. Now, it’s only days later that Julian Assange discloses for the first time that he’s received thousands of stolen Hillary Clinton emails, which we know were stolen by the Russians. So WikiLeaks apparently obtains these emails shortly after the meeting in Trump Tower.
It’s sometime later that Donald Jr. is in private communication with WikiLeaks, this cut out the Russians are using to publish this stolen information. We can see the significance of this much better when we look at this broader context.
Is there evidence of collusion between Russia and President Trump or his associates in the administration or campaign?
There’s certainly evidence of collusion. Now, whether the evidence is proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a decision that Bob Mueller will have to make. There are certain pieces of the puzzle that we now see come into view. We see in April 2016 George Papadopoulos, one of the other foreign policy advisers for the Trump campaign, meeting with Russians who disclosed to him that they possessed these stolen emails, and the Trump campaign learns even before the Clinton campaign that the Russians are in possession of her emails. The campaign expresses an interest and willingness to work with the Russians. We see this time and time again now. There are still missing pieces of the puzzle that we are looking for. We see a growing web of connections between the campaign and the Russians.
How would the potential second special counsel affect the congressional investigations?
The most significant thing it would do would be to destroy a large part of the independence of the Justice Department. It would really be a complete capitulation to political pressure from the White House. So the most significant impact is not on the investigations but on the integrity of the Justice Department.
I served there for six years, and I have to hope that that’s not a path that the attorney general goes down. This was a political call by the president and his surrogates in Congress in urging the Justice Department to investigate his vanquished political opponent. This is what they do in dictatorships and emerging democracies. It’s what we counsel other countries not to do, that is, after you win an election you don’t abuse the levers of power to prosecute your vanquished opponents.
That’s the much bigger significance, frankly, than any impact on our investigation. In Congress, they’ve already announced they’re going to do an investigation of this seven-year-old uranium transaction. But you can expect political ploys like that from the majority that brought you the Benghazi Committee. This is a Benghazi Redux.
Is President Trump under investigation?
That’s not something I can comment on one way or the other.
You recently said Trump is the worst modern-day president and that he’s undermining these investigations. How is this going to end?
I say that he’s the worst president in modern history for a variety of reasons. Certainly, his handling of the Russian interference in our election is one proof of that, but his denigration of the press, calling the press the ‘enemy of the people,’ his discussion of pulling the licenses of a network because he doesn’t like their coverage of him, his belittling of federal judges who rule against him and undermining their legitimacy, his erosion of the independence of the Justice Department, his executive order to preclude people from coming into the country on the basis of their faith; these and many other reasons so clearly make him the worst president in modern history. In terms of where our investigations or Bob Mueller’s investigation will end up, I don’t know, but I can say that it’s our obligation in Congress to do a thorough job and make a complete report to the public and if at all possible to do so on a bipartisan basis. That’s certainly the goal that I’m working towards.
If the Democrats were in the majority, and you were chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, how would you have handled the investigation differently?
There are a lot of ways in which our investigation is departing from best investigative practices, in a sense that the majority is scheduling certain witnesses before we’re ready to interview them and before we have the documents to question them with, and other important foundational witnesses have yet to be scheduled. There are lines of inquiry that we need to pursue and there are subpoenas that should be issued that haven’t gone out. There are issues that we continue to urge the majority to take seriously and to pursue. We hope that they will. Certainly, if we were in the majority we’d be using best practices, and it’s my hope that we can persuade the majority to do so.
President Trump and the White House frequently criticize you for doing so much press. Why do you think it is important to get the message out to the American people about what these investigations are doing?
The only lever that we have in the minority to get the majority to do what they should do in terms of the investigation is by exposing the conduct when they err and also to make the case for why this is important to the country. It’s not a case that the president particularly wants made, and so I’m sure they would like to silence anyone who’s talking about the Russia investigation or explaining why it’s integral to our national security.
If the Russians can hold something over the president of the United States, that is deeply damaging to our national interests and the country has a right and a need to know. So I’m going to continue to make the case. I would only say to the president who doesn’t like how much I do TV, that he would be a lot better off watching a lot less TV, and we would all be a lot better off if he found other ways to occupy his time.
What can Congress do to prevent Russia or another foreign government from meddling in future elections using social media to influence campaigns?
First of all, we need to make sure the social media companies disclose any political advertising with the same kind of disclaimers we see in advertising in other media, and I think that’s going to happen. Some of the companies are already moving in that direction.
More than that, we need to be sure that they’re devoting the resources to ferreting out ‘interference,’ foreign efforts to manipulate public opinion in the United States, or divide us against each other. We now have a tremendous volume of content the Russians were pushing, but they’ll be more sophisticated about hiding their hand next time. And even this time they successfully hid it until after the election.
The tech companies are certainly going to have to step up their efforts. We’re going to need the intelligence community to work more closely with them and let them know when we’ve identified foreign bad actors that are abusing their platforms that they may not recognize, or foreign state actors rather than what they purport to be: individual Californians and Texans and people from all over the country.
And we’re all going to have to be a great deal more skeptical about what we see pop up on our social media in terms of its veracity. We’re going to have to be much more skeptical consumers than we have been and we’re going to have to place a greater reliance on journalistic standards and insisting upon them, which is why the president’s denigration of the mainstream media is so singularly destructive to the country.